17-09-2023 by Freddie del Curatolo
In the beginning were the knife sharpener and the umbrella maker, who then if I remember correctly were the same person.
The cart with the knife-grinder for housewives and the spokes-repairer had a megaphone attached to the tape that looped a message that propagated through the streets of Italy in the late 1970s and endured even the fashions, reaching the threshold of the new millennium and still remaining in the collective memory of a country of shrieking saints, walking navigators and heroes of daily survival.
"Women, the knife-grinder has arrived..." in that message was the art of trifling the cabbasisi (as Camilleri put it) but also the self-irony proper to our people, plus the healthy, somewhat serial and less imaginative resourcefulness that northern vendors can have compared to, say, Neapolitans and Romans.
I was recently at Porta Portese, the famous and endless marketplace in Rome's Trastevere district, and was able to see how the art of bespoke persuasion still survives.
Next to the stallkeeper who addressed a rather fleshy woman, "Signò, with this petticoat and the shape you have, her husband will think that Meganne Foxe has rained down on her," there was a colleague of his who, looking at my petite wife and turning to me, unleashed a pair of 12-heeled shoes, shouting, "And shall we let her grow up a little?"
Stuff that if you do them in Brianza, they call the police for public offenses.
Africa, on the other hand, has always been the land of improvisation, closer precisely to our South. Not only have the market screamers endured to this day, but there is no escaping the grueling negotiation, the jumping from sellable pole to unthinkable fracas. Then if a foreigner transits, there goes all the vocabulary in his or her alleged native tongue rolled out to grab the equally alleged sympathy.
At least that was the case until recently, because even marketers, at least in Kenya, have discovered the knife grinder.
Or rather, someone has been spinning mp3s for their use, which, via cell phone, are amplified from their stall and recite the generic hawker's rosary, with the classic beginning "Karibu castoma," i.e., welcome customer. Invitation in Swahili repeated over and over again, and not by a passing umbrella man with his cart, but by lazy, sedentary shopkeepers who meanwhile with another cell phone are watching youtube videos or chatting with their "kibanda" neighbor.
Artificial insipience has diverted them, too, from the art of the salesperson, reducing them to mere gatekeepers of their wares, trusting that a haunting, soulless voice will convince those approaching to buy or that they themselves have "googled" to see if the price of the ordinance chinoiserie matches the market value, to try to bargain, perhaps asking them to lower that fucking "Karibu castoma."
Until the customer, too, shows up with his amplified cell phone and responds to the salesman's loop with an almost identical vocal tone, "Asante Sana...very kind but I don't need anything today."
Except for some healthy, light, futile, even interested, dialogue.
by Freddie del Curatolo
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